Autumn 2022

Sleep’s critical role in the health of patients — and doctors


Sleep Issue

  • by George Q. Daley
  • 2 minute read

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 1 in 3 U.S. adults are sleep-deprived. In addition, the Institute of Medicine’s Committee on Sleep Medicine and Research posits that more than 50 million people in this country are affected by sleep disorders. Clearly, there is a critical need to better understand sleep and circadian biology.

Fortunately, at HMS sleep medicine and chronobiology have been areas of active research for more than fifty years. In 1997, HMS established the Division of Sleep Medicine. Directed by Charles Czeisler, the Frank Baldino, Jr., PhD Professor of Sleep Medicine at HMS and the chief and senior physician of the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders in the Departments of Medicine and Neurology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the division brings together sleep researchers and clinicians from across Harvard and throughout the School’s affiliate hospitals to advance knowledge on sleep, circadian biology, and neurobiology; make evidence-based contributions to clinical care, public health policies, and workplace safety guidelines; and foster the next generation of sleep medicine physicians.

A notable example of work to advance the discipline is the National Sleep Research Resource. This data-sharing resource is funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and co-led by Susan Redline, the Peter C. Farrell Professor of Sleep Medicine at HMS and director of the Programs in Sleep and Cardiovascular Medicine and Sleep Medicine Epidemiology at Brigham and Women’s. As of 2020, this global resource hosted data from about 30,000 overnight sleep studies that are searchable and can be analyzed along a range of research queries related to physical, psychiatric, and cognitive health.

Our sleep researchers continue to contribute to the body of evidence on the effects of sleep deficiency on mental acuity, research that is vital to understanding the effects of shift work on the cognitive performance of firefighters, police officers, railroad workers — and the more than 140,000 resident physicians across this country. Large-scale surveys conducted by the Harvard Work Hours Health and Safety Group, a pan-Harvard group directed by Czeisler, have backed the call to curtail the number of allowable work hours for trainees in order to decrease medical errors and improve decisions on patient care. The group’s work also informs another troubling problem for our profession: physician burnout. A 2020 article co-authored by Czeisler in JAMA Network Open reported that sleep deficiency and sleep disturbance are predictors of depression and could be underlying factors in poor mental health among physicians.

Sleep, specifically the effects of daylight saving time on health, will also be featured in Harvard Radcliffe Institute’s 2022-2023 Exploratory Seminar series. Czeisler, together with Elizabeth Klerman, MD ’86 PhD ’90, a professor of neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital, will discuss the health-related advantages and disadvantages of both standard and daylight saving time with members of the legislative and executive branches of the U.S. government and leaders from business, communications, education, and other sectors of our society. The outcomes of this learning session could affect nearly every person in the nation.

I am confident that sleep researchers throughout HMS will continue to produce research that will better inform physicians, policymakers, and the public of the importance of a good night’s sleep on our overall health.

George Q. Daley is dean of Harvard Medical School.